Conducting a baseline study

​​​​​​​​Baseline studies may be required to provide information for inventories, conservation assessments or a base against which to monitor and assess whether or not future development poses environmental risks for any of the community values. Risks may be related to changes in water/sediment quality, or unusual water/sediment quality characteristics that exist pre-development.

You can use the Water Quality Management Framework to provide guidance for 2 types of baseline studies.

  • Studies to characterise baseline conditions where there is no (or very little) biophysical information on the waterway, nor necessarily a particular pressure yet identified, for example:
  • developing or refining a conceptual model
  • establishing community values and management goals
  • assisting with biophysical inventories or conservation assessments (typically for gre​enfield sites).
  • Studies to improve current understanding and acquire baseline data where a particular future pressure is identified, for example:
  • developing a water quality management plan
  • assessing a waste discharge
  • remediation
  • potential for unexpected events.

Our guidance will assist in both types of studies but mostly focuses on studies to improve current understanding and acquire baseline data where a particular future pressure is identified.

Not all the steps in the framework are relevant. Guidance information required to inform a baseline study is captured through Steps 1 to 4 but not all these steps will apply to all types of baseline studies

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Examine current understanding

Use current understanding to develop or refine a conceptual model of the key waterway processes that underpin the insight of how an anticipated development could impact local waterways.

Sources of information may be very limited but could include:

  • knowledge from reference locations (e.g. adjacent catchment)
  • relevant historical data collected by governments, private sector and current proponents
  • documented impacts of similar developments
  • government biophysical inventories.

Key stakeholders may be a repository of this information. Stakeholder involvement is critical for documenting current understanding and developing conceptual models.
Monitoring may be implemented at this stage to provide information to help develop understanding of the key biophysical attributes, including:

  • ecological processes of the waterway
  • any knowledge associated with existing pressures on the waterways.

As the study progresses, more information will become available to improve current understanding and enable the conceptual model to be updated.

Use the conceptual model to identify the indicators for each of the key pressures, stressors and ecosystem receptors that need to be selected at Step 3 for use in a weight-of-evidence process that assesses potential water/sediment quality impacts in the event that the anticipated development proceeds.

Key concepts:

Define community values and management goals

Use this step if:

  • baseline study aims to determine community values and management goals, or
  • study design (at Step 3) needs to be informed by community values and management goals.

Community values and possibly management goals (including level of protection) may be available for the area of the baseline study, although these may have been set at a broad statewide policy level or other regional level.

If community values and management goals do not exist, then you could base them on current or proposed land use and stakeholder involvement. Update them as the study progresses and more information becomes available.

Knowledge or assumptions about community values and management goals will help inform the details of the baseline study.

The level of stakeholder interest (other than the study proponent) may be limited for a baseline study so there may be less need for stakeholder involvement workshops than for other typical uses of the framework. This need may change as the study progresses.

Key concepts:

Define relevant indicators

Your indicator selection should be based on the development or refinement of conceptual models, establishment of community values and management goals at Steps 1 and 2, and the type of baseline study you are conducting.

If a future pressure is known and baseline data are required in advance of a development, then select a mix of indicators based on:

  • nature of the pressure
  • typical stressors
  • ecosystem receptors associated with the pressures.

This is consistent with using multiple lines of evidence in a weight-of-evidence process.

If the objective is to improve the current understanding of the biophysical environment and establish the community values and management goals, then you might select a wide mix of indicators for:

  • potential pressures and their associated stressors and ecosystem receptors, or
  • biophysical inventories conducted for other purposes (e.g. conservation assessments).

Selection of indicators for different lines of evidence may be guided by those that have been used for reference systems or similar studies conducted elsewhere. In this case, baseline data and continued accrual of data for these indicators may be used for future impact assessment monitoring programs or derivation of appropriate water/sediment quality guidelines.

Alternatively, baseline data may specifically inform indicator selection.

For example, baseline biological monitoring may identify rare, threatened or endangered species that may have unknown sensitivity to toxicants or physical and chemical stressors. This additional knowledge may change the level of protection (at Step 2) that is appropriate for part or all of the study area.

In type of baseline study, the selected pressure, stressors and environmental receptor indicators will form the basis of a future weight-of-evidence process for assessing water/sediment quality.

For a weight-of-evidence process, the quality of evidence for the indicators considered in a baseline study is used as a crosscheck to ensure their appropriateness and adequacy in anticipation of potential impact assessment.

We provide use-specific quality of evidence tables to assist with the selection of different lines of evidence and their indicators.

Information collected during a baseline study would ideally constitute pre-development monitoring data (e.g. at least 3 years for biological indicator baseline) required for future impact detection and assessment. For this purpose, monitoring may initially be used to:

  • test and validate relevant indicators
  • develop or refine associated sampling methodologies.

Assessment of initial data may require further refinement of the selected indicators, such as where monitoring for an indicator at the required level of statistical sensitivity is found to be impractical.

If initial monitoring data are to be used to assess water/sediment quality (at Step 6), you will need to consider monitoring site suitability (e.g. spatial and temporal dynamics of water quality for defining mixing zones and compliance points).

Key concepts:

Determine water/sediment quality guideline values

This step is relevant if the baseline study is assessing or using water/sediment quality to:

  • initially characterise water/sediment quality against water/sediment quality objectives based on existing water/sediment quality guideline values
  • derive site-specific guideline values based on reference-site data (e.g. background concentrations are naturally elevated due to localised mineralisation)
  • identify the need to derive site-specific effects-based guideline values (e.g. in the presence of species or communities of particular ecological, conservation or economic significance).

Key concepts:

Define draft water/sediment quality objectives

The draft waterquality objectives (or sediment quality objectives) are the guideline values or narrative statements defined at Step 4 for each selected indicator at Step 3 that should ensure the protection of all identified community values and their management goals (Step 2).

For a baseline study for a future development, Step 5 (and Steps 2 to 4) will be comprehensively covered as part of a development approval process.

For a baseline study where water/sediment quality is being initially assessed, assessment might be difficult because the information required in Steps 2 to 4 may be incomplete. In such cases, it is appropriate to use all available information — however limited — to define draft water/sediment quality objectives for initial assessment purposes.

Key concept:

Assess if draft water/sediment quality objectives are met

Baseline studies are typically associated with the characterisation or initial assessment of water/sediment quality. They do not deal with management processes that aim to protect and improve water/sediment quality associated with the latter steps of the Water Quality Management Framework.

For a baseline study for a future development, Step 6 will be comprehensively covered as part of a development approval process.

For a baseline study where water/sediment quality is being initially assessed, the water/sediment quality data for each relevant indicator may be compared with the draft water/sediment quality objectives. Use the general principles of a weight-of-evidence process to evaluate the various lines of evidence, to the extent allowed by the quality of the data available.

The assessment would typically be used to decide whether ambient water quality meets the water quality objectives. If it does not, there would most likely be a need to assess whether this was due to:

  • naturally elevated levels of contaminants
  • other human-related activities in the waterway’s catchment, and/or
  • limitations associated with the data collected and/or the draft water/sediment quality objectives.

If you believe that the amount and type of monitoring data collected have prevented you from adequately assessing the water/sediment quality, and assuming there is an ability to continue collecting data for the baseline study, then up to 2 options are available:

  • reassess the appropriateness of the water/sediment quality guideline values and draft water/sediment quality objectives (at Step 7), and/or
  • consider selection of additional or alternative indicators or lines of evidence (at Step 7).

Key concepts:

Consider additional indicators or refine water/sediment quality objectives

Typically, this step is invoked when water/sediment quality does not meet the water/sediment quality objectives. For a baseline study, Step 7 would only be relevant where the evaluation at Step 6 indicates:

  • additional or alternative indicators were needed (Step 3) to make an adequate weight of evidence evaluation for water/sediment quality, and/or
  • draft water/sediment quality objectives needed to be improved, if that was possible within the scope of the study (Steps 4 to 5). For example:
  • more monitoring data across multiple years would improve referential water/sediment quality objectives
  • need for site-specific effects-based guideline values is identified based on particular conservation, ecological or economic requirements (Step 4)
  • need for the most relevant guideline value possible (e.g. background concentrations are shown to be naturally elevated).

Consideration of these aspects through Steps 3 to 5 may lead to refinements of the monitoring program for the baseline study, with subsequent reassessment of water/sediment quality at Step 6.

Key concepts:

Consider alternative management strategies

Baseline studies do not deal with management processes that aim to protect and improve water/sediment quality so Step 8 is not relevant here.

However, survey or monitoring data from baseline studies can be used as part of other typical uses of the framework.

For example, baseline data can be used to inform modelling (predictive models) required to assess alternative management strategies in approval and subsequent operational phases of a development proposal (e.g. applying for a development approval).

Key concepts:

Assess if water/sediment quality objectives are achievable

This step typically considers whether or not the water/sediment quality objectives are achievable after any necessary refinements made at Steps 7 and 8.

Baseline studies do not deal with management processes that aim to protect and improve water/sediment quality so Step 9 is not relevant here.

Implement agreed management strategy

This step typically involves the implementation of an agreed management strategy to manage water/sediment quality.
Baseline studies do not deal with management processes that aim to protect and improve water/sediment quality so Step 10 is not relevant here.

However, results and outcomes of baseline studies should always be appropriately reported and communicated to relevant stakeholders (reporting). In practice, reports from such studies will usually be part of a larger series of reports or report chapters for a specific purpose (e.g. a development proposal).

Key concept:

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